‘Abdul-Bahá give us some steps to consider:
How shall he obtain these merciful gifts and powers? First, through the knowledge of God. Second, through the love of God. Third, through faith. Fourth, through philanthropic deeds. Fifth, through self-sacrifice. Sixth, through severance from this world. Seventh, through sanctity and holiness. Unless he acquires these forces and attains to these requirements, he will surely be deprived of the life that is eternal. But if he possesses the knowledge of God, becomes ignited through the fire of the love of God, witnesses the great and mighty signs of the Kingdom, becomes the cause of love among mankind and lives in the utmost state of sanctity and holiness, he shall surely attain to second birth, be baptized by the Holy Spirit and enjoy everlasting existence. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 226)
We’ll be considering each of these, and more, in the following section.
1. Turn to God: Until we turn to God, His love can’t reach us:
Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant. (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 5)
In God we can make changes, but we can’t change without His help.
God is sufficient unto me; He verily is the All-sufficing! (The Báb, The Dawn-Breakers, p. 631)
2. Read the Writings: The only way to break the cycles is to understand and start following the Words of God. Nothing else can change the way you think. In order to get out of the prison of self pity, you need to keep every thought captive and judge it through the eyes of God to determine whether it’s true or not. We can’t know how God thinks, without reading the Writings:
It behooveth him to prize this food that cometh from heaven, that perchance, through the wondrous favours of the Sun of Truth, the dead may be brought to life, and withered souls be quickened by the infinite Spirit. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Iqán, p. 23)
3. Have faith: We can only get the bounties by turning to God and away from our self pity. It requires an act of faith or belief that His Teachings are the standard:
Ye must live and move according to the divine commands and behests. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v3, p. 511)
Trust and faith are linked, but not the same. Trust comes from experience; faith comes from believing something that’s invisible. We need to trust God in faith.
It is in God that we place our confidence, it is the life processes which the Faith has set in motion which we trust, knowing that it takes time and includes many setbacks. (Compilations, Quickeners of Mankind, p. 121)
Bahá’u’lláh tells us that faith is a way out:
. . . faith is an endowment from the Higher Kingdom and changes all beliefs into an aliveness in the spirit. The quickening of the soul renews the atoms of the body to the very marrow of the bone . . . The capacity for response to sorrows . . . has been heightened greatly. (Helen Reed Bishop, The Kitáb-i-Íqán: Introduction to the 1950 Edition, p. vi)
And ‘Abdul-Bahá tells us:
The first sign of faith is love. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 336)
And love is the answer:
Love gives life to the lifeless. Love lights a flame in the heart that is cold. Love brings hope to the hopeless and gladdens the hearts of the sorrowful. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 179)
Love heals, but it needs God’s help:
In the hearts of men no real love is found, and the condition is such that, unless their susceptibilities are quickened by some power so that unity, love and accord may develop within them, there can be no healing (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 171)
But how do we get there?
4. Take action: To overcome it, you have to pray and then take action:
Act as though it had all been answered. Then act with tireless, ceaseless energy. And as you act, you, yourself, will become a magnet, which will attract more power to your being, until you become an unobstructed channel for the Divine power to flow through you. (Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Bahai Administration, p. 91)
You’ll never be able to defeat self pity unless you get off your butt. We have to take an active role, because God can’t move a parked car. We need knowledge (which we’re learning here), then the willingness to make the change, and then the action to carry it out:
Mere knowledge of anything is not sufficient. We all know that justice is good, but there is need for volition and executive force to carry it out. For example, should we think it good to build a church, simply thinking of it as being a good thing will not help its erection. We must will to build it. Then wealth is needed for its erection; simply thinking will not be sufficient. (Compilations, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 317)
As the Victory Promises say:
Do according to what host been commanded and do not be of those who tarry. (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Hawaiian Islands, Victory Promises, p. 13)
As the House of Justice says:
Beloved friends: Do not be dismayed or deterred. Take courage in the security of God’s law and ordinances. These are the darkest hours before the break of day. Peace, as promised, will come at night’s end. Press on to meet the dawn. (The Universal House of Justice, Ridván 150, 1993)
5. Make self pity your enemy: If you do it in a fun way, catching yourself in the action and letting it know there’s no room in your heart for it, you will find yourself laughing in delight. Whenever I catch myself, I imagine turning on a huge “no vacancy” sign in my lower nature, so that self pity can’t creep back in.
The deriding of the enemy addeth to the joy of the heart and the taunting of the ignorant becometh the means of spirituality and fragrance. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v1, p. 131)
There’s only one way to defeat self pity, and that’s to stop coddling it and confront it . . . but it doesn’t want to be confronted. To do so seems insensitive or to come from a lack of caring. It’s good to recognize it and demonize it because then we can take responsibility for it and repent. We need to separate ourselves from self pity. If we are one with it, we’ll never be able to disentangle ourselves from its clutches.
6. Make different choices: You can make other choices! It takes as much effort to feel sad as it does to feel happy, but again, it’s a matter of choice. You can change your clothes, putting on a garment of selflessness and turn your attention back to God:
O, when will one arise and while listening to this song don the garment of selflessness and hasten to the precinct of the friend! (Abdu’l-Bahá, Divine Philosophy, p. 30)
It takes as much effort to feel sad as it does to feel happy – in fact, it takes more muscles to frown.
Self pity is the enemy of choice. God wants us to have choices, but for the things that will be best for us:
Commit thyself to God; give up thy will and choose that of God; abandon thy desire and lay hold on that of God; that thou mayest be a holy, spiritual and heavenly example among the maid-servants of God. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v1, p. 89-90)
Caiaphas lived a comfortable and happy life while Peter’s life was full of sorrow and trial; which of these two is the more enviable? Assuredly we should choose the present state of Peter, for he possesses immortal life whilst Caiaphas has won eternal shame. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 50)
Self pity may have been with you for so long, that you may need a personality reconstruction in order to let go of it. But think of it this way: you change your clothes when they become soiled and smelly, so you can clothe yourself differently spiritually as well.
God grant that through His gracious and invisible assistance, thou mayest divest thy body and soul of the old garment, and array thyself with the new and imperishable attire. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Iqán, p. 158)
It’s hard to make choices when you’re full of self pity, and when you do, those choices lack any kind of strength.
7. Live in the present: We need to believe that there is life after self pity; life after failure; life after sin; life after everything because God is the Source of all “Be”ing.
O Source of my being. (Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 248)
Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 161-162)
In God we live and move and have our be-ing. Our be-ing is not in withdrawing from everything, but in living in the spiritual realm while in the physical. When I was mired in self pity and despair, I wanted to die. I was impatient to get to the spiritual world to escape the suffering, not realizing that I could get there just by changing my thoughts.
If thou fulfill its requirements, which are purity of intention, attractive love, insight, discovery of truth and absolute spiritual attitude, thou wilt become entirely free from the physical conditions and wilt soar to the spiritual realms. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v1, p. 150)
In the human plane and kingdom man is a captive of nature and ignorant of the divine world until born of the breaths of the Holy Spirit out of physical conditions of limitation and deprivation. Then he beholds the reality of the spiritual realm and Kingdom, realizes the narrow restrictions of the mere human world of existence and becomes conscious of the unlimited and infinite glories of the world of God. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 288-289)
Yet there is a third reality in man, the spiritual reality. Through its medium one discovers spiritual revelations, a celestial faculty which is infinite as regards the intellectual as well as physical realms. That power is conferred upon man through the breath of the Holy Spirit. It is an eternal reality, an indestructible reality, a reality belonging to the divine, supernatural kingdom; a reality whereby the world is illumined, a reality which grants unto man eternal life. This third, spiritual reality it is which discovers past events and looks along the vistas of the future. It is the ray of the Sun of Reality. The spiritual world is enlightened through it, the whole of the Kingdom is being illumined by it. It enjoys the world of beatitude, a world which had no beginning and which shall have no end. That celestial reality, the third reality of the microcosm, delivers man from the material world. Its power causes man to escape from nature’s world. Escaping, he will find an illuminating reality, transcending the limited reality of man and causing him to attain to the infinitude of God, abstracting him from the world of superstitions and imaginations, and submerging him in the sea of the rays of the Sun of Reality. This fact is proved from scientific as well as spiritual evidence. (‘Abdul-Bahá, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 400)
8. Detachment: It’s not the load that breaks you down but the way you carry it. Detachment and self sacrifice are the keys:
Self-sacrifice means to subordinate this lower nature and its desires to the more godly and noble side of ourselves. Ultimately, in its highest sense, self-sacrifice means to give our will and our all to God to do with as He pleases. Then He purifies and glorifies our true self until it becomes a shining and wonderful reality. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113-114)
9. Have a positive attitude: Here’s a story of what it looks like in action, when everything goes wrong, you can be filled with grief, and still remember to turn your attention to God:
Among the women who came out of their homeland was the sorrowing Fatimih Begum, widow of the King of Martyrs. She was a holy leaf of the Tree of God. From her earliest youth she was beset with uncounted ordeals. First was the disaster which overtook her noble father in the environs of Badasht, when, after terrible suffering, he died in a desert caravanserai, died hard — helpless and far from home. The child was left an orphan, and in distress, until, by God’s grace, she became the wife of the King of Martyrs. But since he was known everywhere as a Bahá’í, was an impassioned lover of Bahá’u’lláh, a man distracted, carried away, and since Násiri’d-Dín Sháh thirsted for blood — the hostile lurked in their ambush, and every day they informed against him and slandered him afresh, started a new outcry and set new mischief afoot. For this reason his family was never sure of his safety for a single day, but lived from moment to moment in anguish, foreseeing and dreading the hour of his martyrdom.
Here was the family, everywhere known as Bahá’ís; their enemies, stony-hearted tyrants; their government inflexibly, permanently against them; their reigning Sovereign rabid for blood. It is obvious how life would be for such a household. Every day there was a new incident, more turmoil, another uproar, and they could not draw a breath in peace. Then, he was martyred. The Government proved brutal and savage to such a degree that the human race cried out and trembled. All his possessions were stripped away and plundered, and his family lacked even their daily bread.
Fatimih spent her nights in weeping; till dawn broke, her only companions were tears. Whenever she gazed on her children, she would sigh, wearing away like a candle in devouring grief. But then she would thank God, and she would say: “Praised be the Lord, these agonies, these broken fortunes are on Bahá’u’lláh’s account, for His dear sake.” She would call to mind the defenseless family of the martyred Husayn, and what calamities they were privileged to bear in the pathway of God. And as she pondered those events, her heart would leap up, and she would cry, “Praise be to God! We too have become companions of the Prophet’s Household.”
Because the family was in such straits, Bahá’u’lláh directed them to come to the Most Great Prison so that, sheltered in these precincts of abounding grace, they might be compensated for all that had passed. Here for a time she lived, joyful, thankful, and praising God. And although the son of the King of Martyrs, Mirza Abdu’l-Husayn, died in the prison, still his mother, Fatimih, accepted this, resigned herself to the will of God, did not so much as sigh or cry out, and did not go into mourning. Not a word did she utter to bespeak her grief. This handmaid of God was infinitely patient, dignified and reserved, and at all times thankful. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 174-175)
Happiness comes from our higher nature. Our reality is spiritual, and when we live in that world, we are truly happy, but again we have to choose it for ourselves, and the best way to be able to choose, is to know the truth, found only in the Writings:
Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 72)
God wants us to live a life that’s “well pleasing” but we can’t do that when mired in self pity:
We would like them both to enjoy a life that is well-pleasing. (Bahá’u’lláh, Compilations, Huqúqu’lláh 57)
If we are not happy and joyous at this season, for what other season shall we wait and for what other time shall we look? (Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i World Faith, p. 351)
The basis for our happiness is not to live a life without adversity, because we will never have that:
Prosperity, contentment, and freedom, however much desired and conducive to the gladness of the human heart, can in no wise compare with the trials of . . . adversity in the pathway of God; for such exile and banishment are blessed by the divine favour, and are surely followed by the mercy of Providence. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 280-281)
Most of us long to feel “happy and joyful” but we can’t feel these and self pity at the same time. If we can’t replace fear with faith, we’ll have no hope of getting past self pity. We can look to ‘Abdul-Bahá and to the martyrs to see how they were able to rise above their circumstances and find joy.
Since the beginning of the Cause, there have been at least ten thousand men who went with gladness to suffer martyrdom, and people who saw them suffering this martyrdom thought it was through their own power, and did not know that a breeze had shaken them. In the days of other Prophets there were people who suffered martyrdom in the Cause of God, but in this day there are more, and these have been more sincere. The histories of this time will record their witness to the things which have happened in this day — to those who have suffered martyrdom. How many mothers have been happy to see their children suffer martyrdom! How many wives have rejoiced when their husbands suffered martyrdom; how many sisters have wept with joy when their brothers died in the Cause of God! Now, it is not possible for one to have joy under these circumstances unless he is shaken by a breeze from the garden of God. (‘Abdul-Bahá, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 499-500)
There is no self pity in joy and God wants us to be joyful. In the prayer for Spiritual Qualities he has us repeat:
I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. (‘Abdul-Bahá, Baha’i Prayers, p. 151)
We need to understand and recognize that it’s self pity that’s robbing us of our joy. When we have faith, we have no reason to lose our joy.
11. Work: The cure for self pity is to engage in some occupation:
To engage in some profession is highly commendable, for when occupied with work one is less likely to dwell on the unpleasant aspects of life. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 175)
12. Respond to invitations: Or to respond to invitations, which is a law of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas:
To respond to invitations. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 161)
Your problems don’t go away, you have to take action to work them out, and the best way to do that is to have faith because then you’re aligned with the will of God. You can think better, hear God better, and pay attention to the direction He’s giving you when you aren’t all muddled in negative thinking. Perhaps that’s why He places so much importance on preparing ourselves to enter the feast:
To a very large extent, the success of the Feast depends on the quality of the preparation and participation of the individual. The beloved Master offers the following advice: “Give ye great weight to the Nineteen Day gatherings, so that on these occasions the beloved of the Lord and the handmaids of the Merciful may turn their faces toward the Kingdom, chant the communes, beseech God’s help, become joyfully enamoured each of the other, and grow in purity and holiness, and in the fear of God, and in resistance to passion and self. Thus will they separate themselves from this elemental world, and immerse themselves in the ardours of the spirit.” (The Universal House of Justice, Selected Six Year Plan Messages, p. 57)
13. Be patient: Here is how God wants us to react:
When calamity striketh, be ye patient and composed. However afflictive your sufferings may be, stay ye undisturbed, and with perfect confidence in the abounding grace of God, brave ye the tempest of tribulations and fiery ordeals. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 73)
14. Be long suffering: Some self-pity is seen as long suffering:
Abdu’l-Ghaffar [one of the four companions condemned to go with Mirza Yahyá to Cyprus] was a close and agreeable companion. He served as interpreter for the entire company, for he spoke excellent Turkish, a language in which none of the friends was proficient . . . He was terrified and shouted for help, for he longed to be with us in the Most Great Prison. When they held him back by force, from high up on the ship he threw himself into the sea. This had no effect whatever on the brutal officers. After dragging him from the water they held him prisoner on the ship, cruelly restraining him, and carrying him away by force to Cyprus. He was jailed in Famagusta, but one way or another managed to escape and hastened to ‘Akká. Here, protecting himself from the malevolence of our oppressors, he changed his name to Abdu’llah. Sheltered within the loving-kindness of Bahá’u’lláh, he passed his days at ease, and happy. But when the world’s great Light had set, to shine on forever from the All-Luminous Horizon, Abdu’l-Ghaffar was beside himself and a prey to anguish. He no longer had a home. He left for Damascus and spent some time there, pent up in his sorrow, mourning by day and night. He grew weaker and weaker. We despatched Haji Abbas there, to nurse him and give him treatment and care, and send back word of him every day. But Abdu’l-Ghaffar would do nothing but talk, unceasingly, at every hour, with his nurse, and tell how he longed to go his way, into the mysterious country beyond. And at the end, far from home, exiled from his Love, he set out for the Holy Threshold of Bahá’u’lláh. He was truly a man long-suffering, and mild; a man of good character, good acts, and goodly words. Greetings and praise be unto him, and the glory of the All-Glorious. His sweet-scented tomb is in Damascus. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 59-61)
15. Understand it’s a process.
As we almost never attain any spiritual goal without seeing the next goal we must attain still beyond our reach, he urges you, who, have come so far already on the path of spirituality, not to fret about the distance you still have to cover! It is an indefinite journey, and, no doubt in the next world the soul is privileged to draw closer to God than is possible when bound on this physical plane. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 209)
Growing out of self pity into faith and trust involves a learning curve. We don’t change copper into gold overnight.
For instance, consider the substance of copper. Were it to be protected in its own mine from becoming solidified, it would, within the space of seventy years, attain to the state of gold. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Iqán, p. 157)
16. Gratitude Self pity is opposite to goodness in your life. The opposite of self pity is gratitude and thankfulness. It’s easier to overcome something when we have a positive attitude. Perhaps that’s why we’re told to thank God, a hundred-thousand times:
In short, thou shouldst thank God a hundred-thousand times . . . (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v3, p. 510)
Self pity has negativity and a lack of gratitude built right into it. We have to take charge of recognizing self pity and letting go of self pity. Each time we do so, we’ll be free. It can take a lot of humility to admit you even have self pity, but if you humble yourself beneath the Mighty Hand of God, He promises to raise you up.
Other articles in this series: